(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) There are a number of very entertaining stories about the making of Hatari! and the most believable of them is that the script was practically written during shooting, given that so much of the movie depended on the unpredictable actions of wild animals. It certainly shows in the herky-jerky nature of the film, in which wild animal catchers in deep Africa alternate game-hunting sessions with quieter drama back at the camp. In a way, the haphazard plot doesn’t really matter: we’re left in an unusual environment, with a director focused on entertainment and big-name stars seemingly having fun. Considering that Hatari! is directed by then-veteran Howard Hawks and stars none other than John Wayne, it’s no surprise if it harkens to the 1940s with its square-jawed male roles and subservient female roles. Making heroes out of big-game catchers working to supply zoos with wild animals ensures that both their methods and goals are reprehensible by modern standards. Then there’s John Wayne in his usual borderline-repellent persona—it’s astonishing to see the movie present him as a romantic lead to an actress nearly thirty years his junior. As a result, I can’t say that I like Hatari! as much as most of the other movies in Hawks’ filmography—but even I have to admit that the hunting footage is nothing short of spectacular, and that the film does an intriguing job in creating a plot to go around the actions of the animals. Elsa Martinelli is captivating in the lead female role, but the best reason to watch the film is to see a well-oiled Hollywood production run against the vagaries (and dangers) of filming alongside wild animals and then figure out how to deal with that captured footage. Amusingly enough, this is the movie for which Henry Mancini’s famous “Baby Elephant Walk” was written.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) Considering Hollywood’s enduring love affair for American heroes (even if we have to scrub a bit of their non-heroics along the way), it was inevitable that sooner or later, Charles Lindbergh would be brought to the forefront with The Spirit of St. Louis. And while James Stewart was far too old at 49 to play Lindbergh (who was 25 at the time of the film’s event), you have to take into account Stewart’s obvious enthusiasm and technical qualifications to play the role of an experienced flyer—as a draftee and then a reserve officer, he flew bombers from WW2 to the Vietnam War. The script focuses tightly on Lindbergh’s trip and not so much on the less heroic aspects of his later life, but as co-written by Billy Wilder The Spirit of St. Louis becomes a fascinating aeronautical procedural as Lindbergh works to develop the plane that will carry him from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and then wait patiently for a good weather opportunity even as others are also racing to make the trip. Director Howard Hawks is in his element here as he describes the relationship between Lindbergh and his plane during the gruelling transatlantic flight. Even the film’s length and overused voiceovers help us feel the isolation and experimental nature of the solo trip. The predictable shout-outs to divine power become annoying, but the film’s clever structure keeps things more interesting than a strictly chronological approach would have done. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is how it manages to create suspense out of a story that everyone knows, with a foreordained conclusion. The Spirit of St. Louis is certainly not a perfect film, but it does create something very entertaining out of three legendary creators (Wilder, Hawks, Stewart) and a landmark historical event.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) As the story goes, Rio Bravo was director Howard Hawks and star John Wayne’s response to High Noon’s deconstruction of western heroism. Unable to tolerate even the slightest amount of criticism (you should read Wayne’s hyperbolic commentary), they teamed up like fearful clucking hens to reconstruct the Western archetype. (They clearly had no idea of what was in store in later years.) Despite my lack of sympathy for their intentions, even I have to admit that Rio Bravo is rather well done in the end. It’s a straight-up formula with a sadistic macho streak of bloodthirstiness as confused with American values (and I’m being charitable in drawing a distinction between the two), but Howard handles it with his usual energy, and Wayne delivers exactly what his creepy robotic persona was designed to do. Rather than look in vain for help from an apathetic population as in High Noon, here we have a sheriff with an overabundance of help as they wait for the enemy attack on their small western town. (Wayne being Wayne, it goes without saying that his character is proven right at every turn of the story.) The overindulgence of the film’s intentions most clearly shows in the film’s inflated run-time at two hours and twenty minutes—there’s no good reason for the film to run this long, but it does. (It doesn’t help that, with two of his actors being also singers, the film pauses for songs. Yes, really.) Fortunately for everyone, most of the film’s interminable lengths come early in the film, leaving the concluding act far better and involving than the rest of the film once the laborious scene-setting ends and we go to the main event promised all along. “Go out of a high note” is the usual tip for filmmakers, and Hawks was too much of a veteran by that point in his career to do otherwise. Despite an overstuffed script, Rio Bravo eventually pulls off a success … but don’t stop watching after the first hour or you’ll never get there.
(On Cable TV, January 2019) Not having seen all of Howard Hawks’ filmography, I’m not entirely qualified to say that he’s never made a bad movie, but Sergeant York is a powerful argument that he’s made at least one average one. This is from a contemporary perspective, of course: Back in 1941, Sergeant York was the perfect combination of a veteran director, a superstar actor and the story of a famous WW1 hero. The titular Alvin York was (and remains) a legend in American military history—a rural God-fearing boy who became a soldier reluctantly, but ended the war with an impressive marksmanship record and the Medal of Honor. The film does dive into the duality of York’s character as being both very religious and a terrifying marksman, but does end up chalking it up to divine intervention. That played by gangbusters back in 1941, but from a contemporary perspective this is squarely a propaganda film: the values espoused here happen to be the perfect values to convince a generation of boys to enlist in the looming WW2—humility, obedience, marksmanship and as few moral qualms about killing as many enemies as possible even if you have to go through impressive rationalizations to keep both your bible and your rifle. Gary Cooper is up to his usual all-American bland self: solid without taking up much of the spotlight, an ideal model for the impressionable audience. There are many, many intriguing points of comparison between Sergeant York and the 2014 American Sniper if anyone cares to look. It doesn’t help the film’s blunt-edged persuasive intent that it feels very long, especially—surprisingly!—toward the end when everything should be wrapping up. It’s easy to see why the film was a smash hit upon release, but it has aged far less gracefully than many of its contemporaries, especially for non-American audiences. If Sergeant York still works today, it’s largely because of Hawks’ skills and Cooper’s charisma.
(On TV, November 2018) As someone who doesn’t go crazy for blondes, I’m less susceptible than most to Marilyn Monroe’s charms. But she could be a hilarious comedienne when given the right material, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (nonsense!) is as good a showcase for her brand of humour as anything else I’ve seen her in so far. Helmed by the always-excellent Howard Hawks, this is a Hollywood musical from the golden age, as two women make their transatlantic way to Paris in search of husbands and their fortunes. “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and Monroe’s Pink Dress are set-pieces of the film, the song reprised more than once. Monroe is very, very funny as the ditzy but clever heroine, while Jane Russell is spectacular as her brunette friend—her “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” number (complete with a surprising amount of cheekiness) is a highlight. Maybe a bit lighter on songs than you’d expect from a 1950s Hollywood musical comedy, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (nonsense!) is heavier on comedy. All of this plays quite well to Monroe’s comedic talents—the film is her showcase even if I prefer Russell on general principles. The gender roles of the film are hopelessly dated, of course (the film is based on a 1940s Broadway musical itself based on a 1920s comic novel, explaining some of the material such as crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner) but once you get into the 1950s frame of mind, anyone will realize that the heroines are really the masters of the plot, playing their hands as skillfully as they can. That kind of agency (need we go over the Hawks woman archetype again?) certainly helps Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (nonsense!) survive well through the decades, offering many of the same pleasures that audiences of the 1950s enjoyed while watching the film.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) As far as reputations go, The Thing from Another World is most famous for being the predecessor to John Carpenter’s The Thing—both adapted from the same John Campbell short story, both about finding a murderous alien encased in ice. But whereas Carpenter’s 1982 movie was a conscious exercise in terror, The Thing from Another World is a far gentler affair, a thriller in which a man-in-a-suit is electrocuted before posing too much of a threat. But a softer version of the same story doesn’t necessarily mean that the film is without its own merits. From the surprisingly effective opening title card, The Thing from Another World is a surprise example of good execution. The technical details ring true, there are a few scenes of substantial impact (the overhead shot of the melted ice being one) and the pacing is more effective than expected. While the nearly all-male-and-white cast isn’t particularly distinguishable, there’s an amiable sense of teamwork to the story (quite a contrast with the 1982 version!) and Margaret Sheridan brings a touch of warmth and humanity with her banter with protagonist-pilot Kenneth Tobey. It’s not all good (the parallels with Soviet invasions and the mad-scientist shtick have not aged well), but The Thing from Another World is generally better than most of the alien-invasion SF movies of the fifties. Christian Nyby reportedly directed, although many agree that legendary producer Howard Hawks played a large role in the film’s production. This may explain the sophistication of the end result despite a trite premise—and a film that still works reasonably well even today.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) There are many reasons why His Girl Friday shouldn’t work. The characters aren’t particularly nice people. A man about to be executed is at the centre of the film’s premise, which is odd for something often billed as a romantic comedy. A woman in a tragic situation becomes a comic device, and then the film makes it even worse by playing her quasi-suicide for laughs. The ending shows no real character growth. And yet His Girl Friday is fantastic. It’s a riot of laughs, a whirlwind of lightning-fast dialogue, a strong show of characters and it still has, more than seventy years later, both crackling energy and some thematic depth. Cary Grant is wonderful as a tough newspaper editor who browbeats both employees and lovers into doing what he wants—an utterly repellent character transformed into a striking comic figure through sheer acting talent. The first fifteen minutes, in particular, have Grant at his best. Rosalind Russell is equally good as a reporter who can’t quite quit either the business or her ex-husband. A sparkling battle-of-the-sexes comedy of remarriage, doubling as a highly cynical (yet uplifting) look at the news business, His Girl Friday still has plenty to wow audiences even today—the speed of the dialogue alone feels very contemporary and so does the biting cynicism about the news business. The film is optimized for speed, not detail—then-veteran director Howard Hawks (in almost exact mid-career) knew that he didn’t have to do anything to get in the way of his two lead actors, and the results speak for themselves. His Girl Friday is well-known today partly because it accidentally ended up in the public domain and has since then been a staple of late-night cable TV broadcasts, but it’s actually really good on its own. It’s got enough laughs to please modern audiences, especially now that the bad behaviour of its characters doesn’t seem so awful.
(In French, On Cable TV, May 2018) It’s easy to see why Monkey Business is often considered to be a loose follow-up to Bringing up Baby—Howard Hawks is back with a fast-paced comedy, Cary Grant reprises his silly intellectual mode, Ginger Rogers steps in as the wilder female partner and the film is at its best when it’s just goofing around. Thanks to a high-concept premise (what if a serum gave you back your youth … or at least made you regress back in age mentally?), there are plenty of opportunities for random silliness. The film never gets better than seeing Day play at being a bratty schoolgirl, although seeing Marilyn Monroe vamp it up as a voluptuous secretary is also fun. While it’s technically a science-fiction film, Monkey Business is best seen as a farce reteaming Hawks and Grant together and just having fun along the way. (This being said, the film’s best laugh comes early on in the opening credits sequence, as the director tells Grant “not yet” and to go back behind the door before making an entrance. Alas, the film doesn’t go back to metatextual comedy.) It’s really not quite up to Bringing up Baby’s standards—the film is occasionally annoying (the monkey), occasionally dull (anything with the scientists), occasionally offensive to modern sensibilities (never mind “the secretary”; I have in mind the “Indian scalping” schoolyard playing.) It’s still not a bad time thanks to the aforementioned goofing off, but it could have been better.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) Yee-haw, little doggies! No, wait, what’s the appropriate expression for a cattle drive? Get it ready because Red River is a western focusing on a very long trip from Texas to Kansas, driving cattle to the market. Beyond the various obstacles along the way, we have a rivalry between an older man (John Wayne) and a younger man. The dramatic tension is obvious and developed in a straightforward fashion, but Red River remains a memorable western largely due to its scope and clean directorial style from Howard Hawks. Wayne is better than usual as an unsympathetic lead confronting his adopted son throughout the picture. As a western, it doesn’t try to reinvent the form, although the focus on a cattle drive is a bit unusual. (Sadly, the usual Native American prejudices are along for the ride). Those who don’t like westerns won’t necessarily be convinced by Red River, but the film does have its share of thrills for genre fans.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) All right. This is it. I am a contended cinephile. When I embarked on a conscious program to watch older movies, I did so supposing that sooner or later, I’d watch a movie that I’d fall in love with. While I’ve been really happy to revisit some old favourites and see them hold up (2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance), or to confirm that some beloved classics are beloved for a reason (Singin’ in the Rain, anyone?), I started watching Bringing up Baby without any expectations other than crossing off a popular title from 1938. Within minutes (specifically the torn dress sequence), however, I was squarely identifying with Cary Grant’s proto-nerd protagonist, falling in love with Katherine Hepburn’s drop-dead gorgeous romantic interest and gasping at the speed and precision of director Howard Hawks’ movie. To put it simply: Bringing Up Baby is as funny, witty and fast as any contemporary romantic comedy, and the 1938 year of release is irrelevant. The plot is a big ball of nonsense that has something to do with a paleontologist, an heiress and a tame leopard. But never mind the plot, as the real strength of the film is in its witty fast-paced dialogue. Hepburn is an instant favourite as a character too crazy to be true … but the entire film is like that, and it plays beautifully even eighty years (!) later. Those who complain that “old” movies are dull and slow clearly haven’t seen Bringing up Baby. It’s raucously funny even today—while contemporary comedic theory holds that chicken and monkeys are the funniest animals, the film makes a strong case that leopards may be a comic engine of their own, as several of the film’s funniest sequences hinge on the eponymous “Baby.” (To be fair, one scene also involves chicken. Being eaten by the leopard.) Considering that the film is often upheld as a representative example of screwball comedies, I have a feeling that I’ve just discovered an untapped vein of pure cinematic bliss. At the pace at which I see movies, I often see them and move on, never to re-watch again. In Bringing up Baby’s case, however, I ended up ordering it on DVD (along with three other similar Hepburn comedies) within days of seeing it. I have a feeling I’ll be extolling its virtues and often lending the DVD in the next few years.